Although it took the London Royalty to make the drink the nation’s darling, with Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Queen of Charles II. Her love for tea established the popularity of the piping hot cups in every nook and corners of the Royal court and the elite classes. And there was no looking back for the East India Company, when they capitalized on the import of tea from China, in 1664.

 

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea! How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea (Sydney Smith).

If Smith was not wrong, Samuel Pepys was certainly right when he tasted the Chinese drink on one 25th September 1660.  He thus paved a historical trail for a great impetus to tea-drinking in 17th century Britain. In the diary of our beloved Samuel Pepys, we come across the first recorded reference to the quintessential tea or “Tcha” in the English world, as the drink, “I never had drank before,” soon to be London’s celebrated ‘cup of tea.’

The tradition of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium B.C in China. It is not until the later half of the 16th century there are the first brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans, mostly the Portuguese. But it were the Dutch who imported the first known shipment of tea from China to Holland.

Tea was quite a late-arriver in the shores of Britannia, dating back to the mid-17th century. And, it was a really expensive affair:

advertisements in the press in 1660 give prices for ‘tea or tay’ from two to six pounds a pound. This is ten times the cost of coffee, making it a very expensive drink indeed. To illustrate how expensive this was, compare the price of tea with that of sherry. In 1660 Pepys spent a shilling to buy a dozen bottles of sack (sherry or other white wine from Spain). At this rate, a pound of tea was worth the same as 1440 bottles of sherry (Mark Manellis).

We find the first official reference to tea in the country from an advertisement in a London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, in September 1658. The section announced the drink being sold at the Sultaness Head Coffee-House, in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London. However, it was largely an unacquainted drink until it caught the curious novelty of Pepys, who sips the first recorded cup of an Englishman drinking tea. It was indeed extraordinary, as Pepys’ diary was not published or even widely known until the unexpurgated version came out in 1970-83.

Although it took the London Royalty to make the drink the nation’s darling, with Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese Queen of Charles II. Her love for tea established the popularity of the piping hot cups in every nook and corners of the Royal court and the elite classes. And there was no looking back for the East India Company, when they capitalized on the import of tea from China, in 1664.

Closer home, East India Company also governed India at that historical juncture and it was also the kernel of the Company’s imperial operations. Therefore the cultivation of tea in India became indispensable with the strained trade relations with China and the Opium Wars.

By 1839, Assam tea was widely grown In India and auctioned in Britain. In another forty nine years’ time, British tea imports from India were greater than those from China. The deal was successful, prices reduced and tea soon replaced ale and gin as the drink of the masses to become Britain’s most popular beverage. Tea became ‘English Tea’ and an elegant part of British culture.

Well, there is indeed a great deal of poetry in a chest of tea, said Waldo Emerson, and Pepys just might agree with him over a cup, maybe?

 

Sweta Dey

Sweta Dey

Sweta Dey is a student of English Honours at Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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